Born: Hong Kong, China, 28 August 1951. Education: Graduated from Hong Kong Institute of Design, 1975. Family: Married to Joyce Ma; children: Adrienne. Career: Worked for a fashion company for eight months before opening his own first shop, Vee Boutique; founder/owner, with wife Joyce, Hong Kong-based Joyce Boutique Holdings, circa 1980; sold interest in Joyce to Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali, 1998; Ad Hoc younger collection introduced by Joyce Ma; agreed to sell majority stake in Joyce to Wheelock & Company, 2000; also served as vice chairman, Hong Kong Fashion Designers Association. Address: Unit 11, 8/F, Tower 1, Harbour Centre, Hok Cheung Street, Hunghom, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China. Website: www.Joyce.com.
"HDP Builds Its Presence in Far East," in WWD, 1 December 1998.
"Sincere Celebrates 100 Years," in the South China Morning Post, 24January 2000.
Sito, Peggy, "Investment Firm Takes Joyce Control," in the South China Morning Post, 5 April 2000.
Daswani, Kavita, "Internet Firm to Control Joyce Boutique," inWWD, 17 April 2000.
Chung, Yulanda, "Business Buzz: A Hong Kong Family Affair," in AsiaWeek, 1 July 2000.
Walter Ma is very much a home-grown designer. Born and educated in Hong Kong, he has been a pillar of fashion for the young and fashion-conscious for more than a quarter-century now. One of the first graduates of Hong Kong's Institute of Fashion Design, Ma began working immediately to establish himself as one of the foremost local designers.
At the time he graduated from the Institute, it was the normal practice for graduates to work within the industry or to go abroad for further training. But after a very short stint working for an export company, Ma took the risky step of opening his own shop. It paid off—his boutiques, Gee and Vee, are now found in major shopping locations, and his workshops employ over a hundred people. He, along with Judy Mann, was among the first local designers to create his own label, became a pioneer in the field, and helped transform Hong Kong from a cheap garment factory into an upscale fashion cosmopolitan. He also served as vice chairman of the Hong Kong Fashion Designers Association, which was cofounded by Judy Mann.
Ma designs for four labels: Gee, Vee, Front First, and Walter Ma. Each offers a distinct look: Vee is the most up-market and offers sophisticated party and daywear, the clothes are feminine, detailed, and dressy; Gee is an easy-to-wear, middle-priced line aimed at the career woman with an emphasis on quality fabric and neutral shades that mix and match; Front First line is Ma's most outrageous, a casual, fun line providing mainly separates for fashionable young men and women; and the Walter Ma line, which is designer clothing. Together they cater to the needs of Hong Kong people, from leisurewear to clothes for special occasions such as graduate parties and the annual Chinese New Year celebrations. As a consequence, Walter describes himself as being client-led. His regular customers are women whose ages range from 20 to 40 and over. "She is a career woman who knows what she wants," he says. He also designs one-off eveningwear for regular customers, who include local film stars, pop singers, and society figures.
Designing for the Hong Kong market is no easy task, for although there is a regular demand for new items, it is a small clientéle and they are quite difficult to please. Ma, along with other local designers such as Bonita Chung, Lulu Cheung, Vivienne Tam, William Tang, Cecelia Yau, Danny Yu and others, dominate the local scene. Giorgio Armani, Ferragamo, and Prada also are quite visible with their modern twists on the classic figure-hugging cheongsam.
Ma designs around a dozen basics produced in very small quantities, on average from 6 to 24 pieces per design. Comfort is always an important consideration in his work, but the clothes are never safe or dowdy. Ma's look is distinctive with inspiration coming from European fashion capitals like Paris and Milan, modified for the local market. Pinstripes and checks are popular fabrics, suits are a staple. Unusual cutting reveals unexpected parts of the body.
His "two-in-one" look coalesces the case of a single garment with the appearance of two. Combinations of black and white have become another part of his signature. This is applied, somewhat unusually, to jumpsuits and other leisurewear, rather than to business attire. Embroidery and beading are other constant features Ma employs, and locally he has become so influential others frequently mimic his look. He regards this both as an irritation and a compliment. Copyists can threaten a designer's reputation, but they also represent the success of a look or a direction. Hong Kong has also been infamous for designer rip-offs, which also damage the reputation of the credible designers.
Ma has long created fashionable clothing for a market he knows and understands; both he and wife Joyce are preeminent representatives in the Asian design world. The two founded Joyce Boutique Holdings, a Hong Kong-based luxury goods distributor, bringing Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabbana and Jil Sander clothes into Asia. Yet due to a retail slump in the Far East, Walter and Joyce decided to sell a 20-percent stake in Joyce to Italy's Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali (HdP) in 1998. The infusion of cash helped the struggling firm, but not enough—its star import line, Giorgio Armani, withdrew its lines from Joyce stores. This in turn led to selling a majority interest in Joyce to Strategic Capital Group (SCG), an investment group, in 2000. Yet this too went sour, and the Mas finally found a buyer in Wheelock and Company.
For Walter and Joyce Ma, the move to sell most of the family's shares in Joyce was a firm step into the future—since the errant SCG as well as the new white knight Wheelock specialized in commerce over the Internet. As Joyce Ma told Women's Wear Daily (17 April 2000), "We will continue to be a fashion retailer," she explained, "The advantage…from this is that we will not be just an old-economy retailer, but we will also have e-commerce which, in essence, is much wider exposure for our brand name. We were the first to bring luxury European brand names to Asia," she continued, "Now we will be the first to bring the same level of service to our Asian consumers, online, in the new economy."
updated by Daryl F. Mallett